Cyclops or elephants?

In 1914, Othenio Abel, an Austrian paleontologist, suggested that the Cyclops of Homeric legend was based on fossil elephant finds in antiquity. Abel, who excavated many Mediterranean fossil beds, related the image of one-eyed giant cavemen to the remains of Pleistocene dwarf elephants, Palaeoloxodon antiquus falconeri, common in coastal caves of Italy and Greece. Shipwrecked sailors unfamiliar with elephants might easily mistake the skull’s large nasal cavity for a central eye socket.

Skull of Palaeoloxodon falconeri, from Museum of Natural History of Verona.

Marble head of Polyphemus, first or second century A.D., Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

The small elephants ranged from 3 to 6 feet (1-1.8 m) high at the shoulder, and the skulls and teeth are much larger than men’s. In profile, elephant skulls do resemble grotesque human faces, and the vertebrae and limb bones could be laid out to resemble a giant man.

Since Cyclopes lived in caves, the ancient Greeks imagined them as primitive  troglodytes who used rocks and clubs as weapons. The great piles of bones on the cave floors might be the remains of shipwrecked sailors—the savage Cyclopes were probably cannibals! Human occupation of Sicily and other islands where dwarf elephant bones abound occurred long before Homer, and descriptions of them probably circulated among sailors from Mycenaean times onward. The Cyclops story was assimilated into the epic poetry tradition and made famous in Homer’s Odyssey.

Palaeoloxodon antiquus falconeri was an archaic elephant that developed insular dwarfism due to the lacking of predators on mediterrenean islands.


The First Fossil Hunters: Dinosaurs, Mammoths, and Myth in Greek and Roman Times. Adrienne Mayor

Asian dwarf elephant, Palaeoloxodon naumanni (1845)

Phylum : Chordata
Class : Mammalia
Order : Proboscidae
Family : Elephantidae
Genus : Palaeoloxodon
Species : P. naumanni

  • Pleistocene (500 000 - 15 000 years)
  • 2 m high and 1 500 kg (size)
  • India, China and Japan (map)

Palaeoloxodon naumanni is closely related to the modern Asian Elephant, Elephas maximus. Similar to mammoths P. naumanni had a subcutaneous fat layer and long fur as an adaption to a cold environment. The species had a pair of long twisted tusks and a bulge on the head. These tusks grew more than 2.4 m in length, 20 cm in diameter. It was a little smaller than Asian elephants averaging 2.5 metres to 3 metres. It lived in forest which mixed subarctic conifers and cool-temperate deciduous trees. The ancestor of Palaeoloxodon naumanni moved from the Eurasian continent to Japan via land bridge; it subsequently evolved independently after the land bridge was covered by sea and spread throughout Japan. Palaeoloxodon naumanni was hunted by the inhabitants of the time. Some fossils were found around Lake Nojiri (Nagano, Japan) together with a lot of stone tools or bone tools.

Dwarf elephant by Zdenek Burian
'Tusk suggests greener, wetter Arabian Desert in the past' - University of Oxford

A joint international research team led by the University of Oxford, in collaboration with the Saudi Commission for Tourism and Antiquities (SCTA), has discovered a giant tusk in the Arabian Desert.

The two pieces of tusk, which together measure six feet (2.25m) in length, are thought to have belonged to a now extinct genus known as Palaeoloxodon (the so-called ‘straight-tusked’ elephants).

An elephant’s carpal bone located five metres away from the pieces of tusk was also recovered from the same sand layer at an excavation site in the Nefud Desert. The sand layer was dated to around 325,000 years before the present day in recently published work by a Swiss team (Rosenberg et al in 2013), and the Oxford team says this suggests that the elephant remains found there are also about that age.

The research team also discovered other animal remains in the same sand layer, including a big cat, thought to be a now-extinct jaguar, and the remains of a member of the horse family, as well as oryx – antelope species which are still native to the Arabian Peninsula today.

Project leader Professor Mike Petraglia, from the School of Archaeology at the University of Oxford, said: 'The discovery of the elephant tusk is significant in demonstrating just how much the climate could have changed in the Arabian Desert. Elephants would need huge quantities of roots, grasses, fruit and bark to survive and they would have consumed plenty of water too.

'Although the sand dunes in the Nefud Desert carry on for miles in the present day, indeed across an area the size of England, around 325,000 years ago it seems the landscape would have been very different.’

The findings were revealed at the Green Arabia conference at Oxford University, at which scientists are examining the latest evidence on how early humans and animals are likely to have been affected by past climate change in the Arabian Peninsula.